Archived Opinion

Describing the indescribable sends me to my book shelves

The exquisite, fleeting beauty of autumn is with us now. Cold nights signal changes to come. Soon there will be a killing frost; winter will be upon us then.

“Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”

Autumn, this brief window between the heat of summer and the gray skies and frigid mornings of winter, is my favorite time of year. There is a bittersweet quality to the season that I’ve never quite been able to capture in words. I think it’s in autumn, or in my desire to write autumn, that I most wish I had been given the gift of poetry. Only poets, it seems, can come near capturing the … the what?

I lack the words, the skill needed to describe this perfect day in a perfect autumn. Blue skies, the sun, the chill, the leaves in yellows and reds; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground; to become trees with leaves that are first green, then yellow and red; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground — a cyclical pattern writ perfectly, but one written here imperfectly.


John Keats wrote to a friend in September 1819: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

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Keats’ composition was “To Autumn.” It begins: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …”

As with Shakespeare in the first quote, we find “ripeness” repeated here in Keats. That tickles my thoughts, and the Buddhist phrase, “like licking honey from the razor’s edge,” resonates in my mind. The simultaneous gain of pain and pleasure is one possible interpretation of that saying. Or, the insistence on gaining pleasure, knowing that doing so brings with it the inevitability of pain — that would be another interpretation, perhaps.

“Here be dragons,” one of the world’s oldest maps, the Lenox Globe, warned would-be travelers nearing the east coast of Asia; another way, I think, of saying something of the same thing … explore at your own peril, living on the working edge, licking honey from the razor’s edge, ripeness is all, autumn changes to winter.


“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die/a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to kill, and a time to heal/ a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh/A time to mourn, and a time to dance/A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing/A time to get, and a time to lose/ a time to keep, and a time to cast away/A time to rend, and a time to sew/ a time to keep silence, and a time to speak/A time to love, and a time to hate/ a time of war, and a time of peace.”


When autumn comes and my thoughts spin into unanswerable questions such as these, about beginnings and endings and the passing of the seasons; when I pick up the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, or search the Norton Anthology of English Literature for Keats; and when I find myself staring for too long into the glass front showcasing the wood fire at night, I like to ground myself by thinking about the ending of a particular book by the fine Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering. He spent time in Japan studying Zen. Van de Wetering, who also wrote a fantastic series of detective novels, recounted his youthful experiences searching for life’s meaning in “The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.” This quest involved long hours of meditation and endless efforts to solve koans, those puzzle-like questions designed to help one obtain enlightenment.

Ultimately, at the book’s end, van de Wetering leaves the monastery and goes to a bar and has a beer.

That, too, is ripeness of a sort, I suppose. Having already imbibed my life’s allotment of beers, I think I’ll go have a glass of tea.

(Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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